TALLAHASSEE — Florida State University students, faculty and staff are getting a turn this week to ask questions of three finalists to become the school’s president, as the field has been narrowed to candidates who hold top posts at other universities.
The finalists who emerged from nine candidates interviewed by the university’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee are Richard McCullough, vice provost for research at Harvard University; Robert Blouin, executive vice chancellor and provost of the University of North Carolina; and Giovanni Piedimonte, vice president for research at Tulane University.
The first of three day-long forums began Tuesday with McCullough, who took questions from faculty, staff and students in one-hour sessions.
“I’m a chemist by training,” McCullough told university staff members. “I grew up in Mesquite, Texas … of modest means. My mom was a secretary, my father was a salesman, and then he lost his job very early in his career.”
Telling the crowd his father went on to work a modest job, McCullough also spoke of his own experience working a paper route and at a pizza restaurant. He tied his story of humble beginnings into making the case that he believes in affordable education.
McCullough worked at Carnegie Mellon University for nearly 20 years and attained posts as high as vice president for research before going to Harvard in 2012. But on the campus of Florida State, he appealed to the groups by calling public universities “engines of social mobility.”
“My passion is really with the students, and really around this idea of helping to create social mobility. I mean, public universities are special places,” McCullough said.
McCullough also pitched himself as a candidate who could bolster the university’s reputation on the national level, saying there’s a “huge opportunity to raise more money here, from individuals and from corporations, in the proper way.”
Blouin will take part in forums with the university groups Wednesday. Before being hired by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2003, Blouin taught and held various posts at the University of Kentucky.
“To come to a place like this, and to work with people who aspire to be great … that’s what I want to be a part of,” Blouin said during an interview with the search committee Friday.
Piedimonte will answer questions during forums Thursday. When he was interviewed by the search committee, Piedimonte said he would boost research capabilities at the university and spoke of having experience on campuses where “the goal is to get the bar higher.”
“What I’ve learned working in several top institutions is, what makes the difference is culture,” Piedimonte said.
Greg Boebinger, a Florida State professor and director of the university’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, said the forum Tuesday gave a wide group of people a chance to know McCullough better.
“It’s critically important to have a selection process that’s inclusive in so many different ways. The communities whose advice is being sought need to be various and broad,” Boebinger told The News Service of Florida.
Boebinger said the three candidates are “very exciting finalists” and that he has been impressed with them.
The candidates are vying to succeed President John Thrasher, who announced last year that he planned to retire.
The search committee Saturday weeded out more politically connected candidates, including state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Corcoran also is a former Florida House speaker.
Because Corcoran is a member of the state university system’s Board of Governors, which ultimately would have to approve the candidate selected by FSU’s Board of Trustees, questions about a conflict of interest were raised Thursday in a letter from an accrediting organization for FSU, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
In his role as education commissioner, Corcoran is required by the state Constitution to serve on the Board of Governors.
The Board of Governors responded Friday by saying that Corcoran would recuse himself from a vote if chosen for the job. But when he was ultimately dropped from the group of finalists, one search committee member objected.
“I believe this committee should send a message to anybody that would interfere with what we’re doing and write a letter like that, it’s not appropriate,” said Craig Mateer, who also serves on FSU’s Board of Trustees.
Following this week’s candidate forums, the search committee will make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees about which candidate to select. The trustees are set to meet Monday, with the meeting moved up from a previously scheduled date in early June.